Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT
Social Worker Specializing in Psychotherapy & Therapeutic Yoga Instruction
Alena Gerst, LCSW had always been interested in human behavior and relating to people. Her family and friends noticed early on that she was unafraid to bypass small talk and ask very personal questions with sincere interest; also that people felt comfortable talking with her. She sought out a career in clinical social work later in life after working with an LCSW psychotherapist herself.
She initially consider getting a PhD in Psychology, but her strong desire to work in intervention right away outweighed the fact that she would need to study for 5 years before getting to do what she really wanted to do --work with people in direct practice. She admits to having an activist side; a trait that eventually led her to social work. Gerst soon found herself highly motivated by the social issues addressed in social work; she reveled in the fact that working with people in the field was an integral part of her hands-on training.
In 2014, Gerst authored the book A Wellness Handbook for the Performing Artist: The Performer’s Essential Guide to Staying Healthy in Body, Mind, and Spirit and is working on another with a friend/colleague who is a physician and acupuncturist. Gerst enthusiastically reports that today she thoroughly enjoys her private practice, as well as her work in NYC hospitals.
Will you please share a bit about your early life?
I was raised in a family of lawyers. My parents were both Superior Court judges in Arizona. I grew up hearing about cases at the dinner table ranging from divorce cases and child custody issues to murder cases, and I was routinely asked what I thought. I also loved visiting my parents at court and when I was old enough to drive. I enjoyed taking my friends to visit my parents at work, but my true love as a young person was always dance and performing. My parents were surprisingly permissive and laid back given what they witnessed day to day, and they are also natural born performers themselves. I still love to talk about the law with them as they remain actively engaged in their legal community. But I am truly grateful that I had the fortitude to follow my own path and pursue what energizes me the most as a mind/body psychotherapist.
What is your educational background?
Most of my time as a teen was in theater classes and dance training. In college, I focused on my BS in Psychology at Northern Arizona University and studied ballet in the Royal Academy of Dance method. My pre-law adviser became my most enthusiastic cheerleader when I confessed I wanted to pursue my dreams of being on stage professionally after college. 10 years later, she wrote me a glowing recommendation for graduate school, and I obtained my MSW from Columbia University in New York City in a two year full-time program. Over the years, I also obtained my yoga teacher certification, and I remain an avid student of yoga in the Iyengar method. I also obtained certification in therapeutic yoga techniques at Beth Israel Medical Center's Department of Integrative Medicine working with patients at their hospital bedsides, and in LifeForce Yoga for Anxiety and Depression with Amy Weintraub at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. My education and training will continue throughout my career, and I'm always on the lookout for what I need to learn about next to best serve my clients and patients.
In your opinion, what is special or rewarding about working in your field?
Every so often, I am rewarded with an acknowledgement from someone who feels compelled to let me know that something I wrote, or some time I spent with them, helped them to feel better. For me, that's the golden egg.
What words of wisdom would you offer a person who wants to have a career similar to yours?
I would say to be proactive. This is definitely a career in which you get out of it what you put into it. I know that sounds cliché, but it is true. As I said earlier, the degree is very flexible. You can graduate and take a job that offers an ok salary and benefits and coast along in that job for as long as you want or need. But if you want more, as I did, you can definitely create your own opportunities. You can write books and articles, give lectures, sit on panels, open a private practice, and specialize in something that really lights your fire. It all depends on how far you want to go, and how much effort you want make. Don't be afraid to reach out to people who seem to be doing what you want to do (including me). I have people emailing me to set up time to talk or write some questions about my trajectory. I'm happy to share what I know has worked for me, as many people have also been generous with their time with me too.
If you could, what would you change about your specialty field to make it better?
Social workers are some of the hardest working and most caring professionals I know. I truly wish the traditional jobs in agencies, hospitals, and settings where social workers are generally found paid better.
What one thing do you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?
I don't foresee an end to my career until the end of my life! But I do envision myself having written many bestselling books, teaching at the university level, and I would love to give a TED talk.